City zoning enforcers contradict councilman’s denials

Illustrations for Audin Samuel story

Beaumont’s Ward 3 City Councilman and criminal defense attorney Audwin Samuel is still denying accusations he is or was operating a business without a specific use permit or certificate of occupancy, and during council comments at a June 9 meeting, the enraged city leader lashed out regarding The Examiner’s report last week, spouting accusations of racism and discrimination.

In last week’s Examiner, residents of the Oaks Historic District said Samuel is illegally doing business in their residential neighborhood, where they do not want businesses operating at all. Samuel denied allegations he was working from the house and asserted he was following the law by applying for a specific use permit prior to opening for operation, but a warning letter from the city to Samuel contradicts that denial.

Samuel has applied for a specific use permit to operate his firm, Samuel & Son Law Firm, at the house on Hazel, a permit necessary to create an exception for the business to operate within the neighborhood currently zoned for multi-family residential dwelling only. The matter will be before the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission on June 15, but without the permit and the certificate of occupancy required by law, he cannot legally open for business.

After receiving complaints from Samuel’s new neighbors that an unauthorized business was budding in the historic neighborhood, the city’s Planning and Zoning Division visited the law office to investigate.

A June 1 inspection revealed business activity occurring at the location, Anna Varela of Planning and Zoning determined, in violation of a city ordinance requiring a Certificate of Occupancy prior to starting any business in the city limits. A Certificate of Occupancy, she stated, would only be granted after a Specific Use Permit (SUP) – which Samuel does not have.

“Please accept this courtesy warning letter and cease business activity no later than June 17, 2015,” Varela wrote to Samuel.

Oaks Historic District Neighborhood Association president Virginia Jordan says she and other district residents do not support any special provision for the sitting city councilmember, saying that allowing new business in the historic district would directly counteract efforts already underway to preserve the neighborhood.

“Commercial encroachment diminishes property value,” Jordan said last week. “We put our blood, sweat, tears, and dollars in these houses – and saved them.”

Oaks Historic District resident Gretchen Hargroder, who has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years, also told The Examiner that she does not want some of the clients represented by criminal attorney Samuel in the neighborhood.

Last week, Hargroder told The Examiner, “No one wants to live next door to a legal office that specifically services criminals and criminal law,” Hargroder said. “It could be used for a halfway house, or other commercial use, and we have nothing we can do about it at that point.”

Samuel said comments like that led him to believe the issue could be less about allowing a business in the neighborhood and more about racial discrimination.

Criminal element

Information collected at the county clerk’s office and the district clerk’s office in Jefferson County provided a glimpse into the kinds of cases and clients for which Samuel is the attorney of record. Samuel is currently defending clients on misdemeanor charges of theft, evading police, terroristic threats, possession of marijuana, possession of a dangerous drug, possession of a controlled substance, assault, trespassing, violation of a protective order and more. Of those facing misdemeanor charges, multiple parties have prior felony convictions. Samuel’s clients currently face felony charges ranging from weapons violations to child pornography to sexual assault of a child to aggravated robbery, and all the way up to murder.

Samuel was the attorney for convicted murderer Richard Trahan who was found guilty in the 2005 shooting death of 39-year-old Todd Hall. Evidence presented in court proved Trahan shot Hall for stepping on his tennis shoes.

Hargroder said she is confused as to why Samuel chose a residential location for his new business office location, especially without getting the special use permit beforehand, unless he expected special treatment.

 “Are there not ample commercial spaces available? There’s plenty of opportunity for him to open his office nearby in a commercial zone, like on Calder,” she said. “I just don’t understand.”

Harsh comments made by Samuel toward the end of the June 9 meeting and pointed questions directed at Community Development Director Chris Boone regarding an unrelated SUP request on the agenda June 9 made clear that Samuel, as a black man, believes he is being unfairly targeted because of his race.

In considering whether or not to repeal an SUP issued to a business at 1795 Park St. based on the fact an impacted neighbor had not received proper notice of a mandatory hearing prior to approval, Samuel asked questions seemingly more related to his own SUP.

He asked Boone why the business in question would be allowed a permit in the zone, which is primarily residential. Boone answered that as a Residential Conservation Revitalization District, not a multi-family residential zone like the one where Samuel is trying to open his office in, “some light retail and some professional offices” were allowed.

“So, if an applicant meets all of the criteria set forth for a specific use permit, that means that by right they would be able to go into the RCR,” Samuel said. “Is that correct?”

“It’s conditional,” answered Boone. “There’s an eight-step test that you have to evaluate, but again, it being a conditional approval, it ultimately is going to be guided by things like, is it compatible? But also, is it beneficial to the development and redevelopment of the area. So, there, it’s not all black and white. … There are some subjective considerations.”

Samuel mentioned complaints that the Park business was open before they received a SUP. Boone said those accusations were “not substantiated” by city staff inspecting the premises.

Samuel asked, “If someone were accused of operating a business without the specific use permit, would they be allowed due process to prove or disprove whether they were operating?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Boone.

As part of the due process, Boone said a warning letter like the one Samuel received would be issued. Then, the owner would be allowed to come into compliance within 14 days, a step before they would face a municipal court judge.

“If at that point they don’t comply, the next step would be to file a complaint with municipal court,” said Boone. “We as a staff are not going to send a letter based on a (verbal) complaint. We are only going to send a letter once we have convinced ourselves and have adequate evidence that there’s a violation in place.”

After the meeting, Boone said his office sent Samuel the warning letter only after they concluded he was operating his business prior to attaining his SUP.

Boone said zoning violations can be difficult to identify but factors considered during inspection include complaints from neighbors that business is being conducted from a residence, excessive cars parked in the driveway or in front of the structure, employees or clients going to and from the structure, advertisements placed indicating the address is that of a business (online or otherwise), and signage.

“Sometimes it takes a while for us to determine that there’s a violation,” he asserted. “Having a few cars in the driveway is not enough. But if we were to go to a residence and there were several cars, there was a person working there who does not live there, there are a lot of people coming and going, there are computers in the front room where you might expect there to be living room furniture, commercial lawn service, people selling items from the home, that’s when we would send a letter.”

Samuel inquired about a home business exception during the meeting. Boone said it’s a special provision in city ordinances that allows limited commercial activity in one’s home without an SUP. For example, an attorney with international clients or clients who live far from the attorney could work remotely with those clients from their residence. Clients would not be going to the home, and the home would have to be the primary residence of the person doing business at the home. That does not apply to Samuel. In fact, the Ward 3 councilman is required by law to reside within the ward he represents, in north Beaumont. Therefore, if he were to reside at the home for which he is currently seeking the SUP in order to bypass the process and use the location under the home business occupation exception, he would have to resign his position as city councilman.

During councilmember comments, Samuel said a Vietnam vet approached him at the mall and passed him a note that read, “I and so many others put their life on the line for this country. But to have someone going tell me where I can live or not live is not right.”

“I’m wrestling,” Samuel went on to say. “But I realize my wrestle, my battle is not against flesh and blood, but it’s against principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness, the rulers of the darkness. But it’s difficult when you are trying to do the right thing, and you continuously fight battles. 

 “Last week, the headlines on one of the papers, ‘Above the law’ (The Examiner, June 4-10, 2015) — that was a personal attack on me.”

He went on to say, “The truth is, I made an application for a specific use permit because I have that right under the law. I followed the law. I made application. I moved my things into the office. I am not open for operation. That is not the point. The point is I have the right under the law, under city ordinance, to apply to open a business in that particular zone. … I have not asked for a zone change. I’m not asking that that neighborhood be changed to a commercial use (zone). I’m exercising the right that’s given to me under the city ordinance.

“You said it’s not racial. … I’ve never said it’s racial. The first comment to me was, ‘We don’t want you people here.’ That is very racially insensitive. But I did not say it was simply because of race.”

Oaks Historic District Gretchen Hargroder says she was offended by the councilman’s comments at the June 9 meeting.

 “To imply that we don’t want him living there, it’s smoke and mirrors,” Hargroder said. “We would welcome Audwin and his family with open arms if they wanted to live in that home. However, that is not what he wants to do.”

Hargroder said the business would drive down property values and asserted that the city promised residents of the neighborhood that they would be protected from commercial encroachment prior to investing their hard-earned dollars into the neighborhood many years ago.

City Councilman Mike Getz said, “This isn’t about a matter of where anybody chooses to live in the city of Beaumont. Obviously, the law and what is right allows people to live anywhere where they choose to live. It’s not an issue of that at all. … It is not about trying to keep anybody out the neighborhood based on race, and I for one resent that card being played. … I understand that while you might have the perceptions that that is the way it is, perception is not always reality.”

During the meeting, recently elected Ward 1 Councilman Claude Guidroz said, “I always pray about doing what’s right … but again I would echo that it’s not always apparent. Pray for us that we always look at all of the facts and listen to all of our constituents. … We’re here to make this city a better place, even though it’s a great place to live.”

After council June 9, Guidroz commented, “As a city councilman, I want to be above reproach.”

He said he believes Samuel expected his position as a councilmember to get him special treatment or he would have applied for the  SUP prior to beginning his move. Guidroz said as a member of the elected City Council, his job is to serve the city and his constituents, not his own personal agenda.

Jordan of the Oaks Historic denies telling Samuel she did not want “you people” in her neighborhood, and does not believe anyone else in the neighborhood made such a “racially insensitive” comment Samuel referred to June 9.

“Because The Councilman says something is true does not, certainly in this case, make it so,” Hargroder wrote in e-mail correspondence to The Examiner. “The only issue is a business on the primarily residential street. If the business is allowed in that location, my property values and those of my neighbors will be negatively impacted. The precedent will then be set to allow businesses in that location from this point on.

“The Oaks is more diversified than any Beaumont neighborhood, and we are very proud of that fact. It makes us who we are… The charges made by the Councilman are beyond ridiculous.

“All he has to do is move over one street to any one of several nice locations on North or McFaddin. The RCR-H zoning covering those streets make this problem go away. We would welcome his family as residents. Any law office does not belong in the 2200 block of Hazel.”

Jordan said Samuel is confusing the real issue at hand.

“‘Discrimination’ is his word, apparently, for ordinance enforcement, ordinances which he is charged with enforcing,” said Jordan. “This is all very difficult to understand. We welcome him as a resident, and we welcome his practice one street over, anything that says otherwise is ‘spin’ intending to divert attention from the true issues. … The ordinances I have referred to have allowed this district to achieve a certain degree of prosperity. It’s been hard work but we’re all very proud of the ‘largest historic district’ in Texas.”

Jordan said she expects dozens of residents to show up to the Planning and Zoning meeting June 15 when Samuel’s SUP request will be discussed.

 

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